This story takes place in a time from long ago, when kings and queens ruled the land. Most kings became famous for their battlefield wit, their economic prowess, or for a particularly prosperous reign; but in this story, the King is famous for his apples.
His orcharder was tremendously experienced, and skillful in his field; he had been hired by the King’s father before him. When the King was but a boy, he had the orcharder plant a single shining seed in the orchard, and it was not until the very year that the then-prince was crowned king that it bore its first fruit.
It was only small then, but it was a miraculously fast grower, and almost six years later it was a thick, sturdy behemoth of a twisted, gnarled creature, and no wind would fell it. Its branches spread out far and wide, creating a thick canopy of gorgeous yellow leaves (you could see them from the walls of the castle) that never turned brown.
The only curious thing was that when you looked over the walls and saw the tree, you knew it was marvelous, but you could hardly tell that it ever bore any fruit at all from such a distance. In fact, nobody outside the castle walls was completely certain what the apples were supposed to look like. It was rumored that it produced golden fruit, but were they just an ordinary, dull yellow, or were they beautiful shining gems?
If you asked around, most of your answers would be a shrug or an “I don’t know”. Some might even assert that it produced no apples at all!
But the orcharder began to grow old, and soon he realized that he required an apprentice to train, that could take over after he was gone. He had the town crier announce the need in town, and it fell on the ears of Marilla Twain.
Marilla had a young son, who was just of age but evidently had no special skills or talents. They were a wood-carving family, making chairs and figurines, but her son – who was called Sam, or Sammy by his friends – was not at all delicate enough for the creative figurines, but also not particular enough to manage a symmetrical-looking table. He wasn’t careful enough to keep the bread from burning, didn’t care to pick colors that looked decent together when weaving, not particularly invested in quality stitchwork on leather –
All in all, the problem seemed to be that everything they gave him to do bored him to death, and so he wasn’t at all interested in any of it and appeared to be good at nothing at all despite having a well-rounded education.
So when Marilla heard about the new opportunity, she endeavored to sign up her son right away (despite all of his protests that he wasn’t interested in mere gardening). She brought him to the castle gates, showed him to the third and second gardner (who are like employees to the head gardener), and finally brought him before the orcharder himself.
At this time the orcharder took Sammy aside to speak with him privately, because his mother spoke so rapidly that her son hardly got a word in edgewise.
“So why are you here, Sam?” he asked.
“I think because I’m lazy and need to work,” said Sam, rapping his fingers on the table. He looked tired, and a bit hopeless.
“Did your mother bring you?”
“Yes, she did.”
“What are you good at, Sam?”
He averted his eyes. “Nothing.”
“What do you like to do?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“So you have no chores you do around the house?”
“I sweep and feed the chickens.”
“You have done nothing else at all?”
“I have but I’m lousy at everything I try.”
“What have you done?”
And Sam rolled off a long list of craftsman and trade skills jobs, including fishing, boatmaking, rope-making and tailoring, looking frustrated at the whole affair.
“So why do you think you’re lousy at them, Sam?”
“I don’t know. I guess I just get bored with them all.”
So after this rather poor interview, the orcharder returned to Marilla and told her that he would call her back after he had taken a few days to consider any other applicants.
But afterwards, Sam realized that they hadn’t seen the tree with the golden apples whatsoever.
The orcharder sent a messenger to the Twain house after a few days – as promised – to inform them that the orcharder wished to have Sam as his apprentice, and not even before the messenger left did Marilla have Sam pack up his bags, and sent him off with a kiss goodbye (although by that time it was quite late, and almost dark out).
Sam was very disinterested the whole way there. He tried to speak pleasantly with the messenger as they went, but the messenger was much too focused on his present task to bother with piddling conversations, so Sam was left to figure out how he was supposed to occupy himself as he walked.
He wondered. He was predisposed to wondering. It was perhaps the one thing he was good at.
‘Wonder how they made the roads,’ he thought to himself. ‘I’ve heard that they make the bricks of clay and put them in an oven to bake until they get hard. But then how hot must it be? And do they never burn? How long does it take to get all that water out of a block of clay? Not that it would ever hold my interest, if I ever got to learn!’
He wondered aimlessly and pointlessly until they got to the castle gates. The messenger gained them access, and soon they were both walking up to the orcharder’s house, a small cabin in the near corner of the orchard. The lovely yellow leaves could be seen in the distance, backlit by the dusky sun.
The messenger knocked on the door. “Sir, I’ve brought the new apprentice.”
There was a pause. A cough. “Good. Send him in. Thank you.”
The messenger opened the door. Sammy walked in, seeing a small one-room house with a desk, a chair, and a bed. The orcharder was sitting on the bed in his nightclothes; he was probably fifty or so.
“You must forgive me,” said the orcharder. “I like to go to bed early. Here, I suppose now that you are my apprentice you should know my name. Call me Garibald.”
“You know my name,” said Sam. “It’s Sam. Nice to meet you, Garibald.”
“You too, son. ‘Fraid I have no place for you, now, but you may put a bedroll on the floor until such accomodations are arranged. Good night.”
“What? Wait, don’t we-”
Garibald was already fast asleep. There was nothing for waking him up.
“Well, alright then,” Sammy murmured to himself.
In the morning, Sam brushed himself off from the dust on the floor, and Garibald got dressed exceedingly early in the morning before Sam woke up and took a jog, so that Sam could wonder where in the world the old orcharder had gone. When Garibald had returned, Sam was dressed and well-groomed in his best clothes, writing in a journal at Garibald’s desk and looking dejected.
“I am glad you are punctual,” said Garibald. “I have known many a man who will let things go until the very last minute. But my, my! What a long face you have on. Tell me what the matter is.”
Sam paused, and shut the book. He thought for another moment longer. “I suppose I am merely afraid that I will be lousy at this too.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” said Garibald in an encouraging tone. “Come come! We are to go to breakfast with the King.”
Sam recoiled as if he’d been stung. “What?”
“Breakfast with the King.”
“With the King?”
“We do not eat at a separate table?”
“The Queen deems it impractical to have a dedicated dining room for the servants when the main hall can accomodate almost 300, though we do have our own sections. During parties we set up some tables and chairs in a spare room and eat there.”
“I shall die of embarrassment. Eat with the King himself! Ridiculous.”
“You will be fine. I think you will be surprised by the King’s sense of humor!”
Unfortunately, Sammy didn’t really have any say in the matter.
Breakfast, indeed, wasn’t at all disagreeable. It was all quite good, though the King’s family naturally got finer fare than the servants. Sammy’s breakfast – as the orcharder’s new apprentice – consisted of pancakes, hearty slabs of smoked bacon, boiled puddings with apple preserves, and strong coffee. It was all very good, and the apple jam in particular was excellent. The strange thing was, that when he looked closely at it he realized that there were minute flecks of gold floating around in it.
There would be no reason to put gold leaf in apple jam meant to be eaten by the servants. Perhaps the rumors about the golden apples were true, and this was made from the fruit?
Not particularly important. Sammy just knew that it was all very good, and that he miraculously was now not at all uncomfortable eating in the King’s house.
Sammy’s first lesson was straight after breakfast, and the first order of business was to familiarize him with the trees.
Garibald showed him every tree, the rows and rows of trees that had been wound about a long fence using a technique called ‘espalier’, and the rest of the trees that could not be wound around a fence. There were many, many apples – apples in red stripes and yellow stripes and dark red and peachy red and lovely gradients and all sorts of strange patterns – but many of them paled in comparison to the gigantic, fast-growing apple that sat at the far, far end of the orchard.
It was as beautiful as it had appeared at the fence, looking ancient and well-worn despite being little more than 15 years old. Its leaves were yellow, as usual, but given that it was nearing the end of summer, Sam could see flowers on it – thousands and thousands of delicate, five-petaled, creamy-white blossoms. The air was heavily perfumed with their sweet scent.
“It’s beautiful,” said Sam, awestruck.
“Yes,” replied Garibald.
“Does it really make golden apples like they say?”
“It does. Big shining delicious gems.”
Garibald smirked with a twinkle in his eye. “Would I lie to you?”
Sammy laughed. “Oh, wow!” he walked towards the tree to put his hand on the bark. “Say, where do the apples go when they’re harvested?”
“The King puts most of them in his store. Of course they are occasionally used to cook with, especially if they are flawed.”
“Why would he do that?”
“Well, I don’t know. I just follow orders!”
“Don’t they ever go bad?” Sammy asked.
“They last a tremendously long time if properly kept,” Garibald said. “I think there may still be apples that were picked five years ago in the store.”
“Wow.” Sam stared in amazement at the tree. He thought aloud, “What could you possibly need that many apples for? And why would you keep them all to yourself?”
“They’re the King’s apples,” said Garibald. “King does with them what he wishes. Come come. I must show you the basics of orchard management.”
Still questioning the whole affair, Sam followed Garibald obediently back to the orcharder’s cabin.
The lessons went on. The days were generally peaceful, with fluffy white clouds that passed overhead to greet you with funny shapes and then were on their way without much ado. The meals changed moderately from day to day, but were never too different so that Sam could enjoy some sort of routineness after being abruptly uprooted against his will.
The blossoms on the tree slowly fell to the ground in one prolonged snowfall, and they covered the ground with creamy white petals that were silky-smooth to the touch and a joy to play in for the king’s little ones, Princess Anna and Prince Bertie. The air grew cold over the days, the rest of the leaves turned orange and gold, gradually falling. Tiny greenish-yellow fruit appeared on the great golden apple tree, and Sam stared at them long and hard one day, thinking back to an earlier conversation with his master.
“Sir,” Sam began, as they were raking up the leaves. “Why does the King not share his apples?”
“Hm?” Garibald took a moment to realize what was being asked. “Oh, of course he shares his apples. You’ve been eating them in Henny’s marvelous apple preserves!” Henny was the head cook (and the reason Henny leaves the skins on when she makes preserves is because it firstly makes a beautifully shimmery product, and secondly because the skins on the golden apples were not tough at all and so peeling is absolutely unneccessary).
“No, no-” Sam pressed his lips together as he carried on his work. “I mean, outside the castle. There are lots of products that go out of this castle to be sold, but you never see the golden apples being carted out. There are lots of people outside the walls who think this tree never produces, so that’s why you never see any golden apples. But this tree is far more productive than any other! So why is it that we never see the produce outside the walls? It seems to me like the King is hoarding the better part of it all for himself!”
“Now, Sam,” Garibald began in a warning tone, “You know you should not talk about your King that way!”
“Yes, sir,” Sammy brushed it off. “But why-?”
Garibald sighed loudly by way of an interruption. He looked tiredly at his apprentice. “Look,” he said. “I don’t know why the King is keeping all the apples in his store. But I do know that so far he has lead justly, that he gives me a fair wage and treats me with kindness. I am but a servant, and I will do as my master commands me.”
Sam shrank a little under Garibald’s severe gaze, sighed – clearly not satisfied – and returned to raking the ground. Garibald did the same.
So Sammy stared up at the tree looming over him, at its tiny little fruits, and a deadly thought wove itself into his head:
What right does the King have to withold these apples from his people?
It seemed so simple. The King had asked Garibald to plant the tree, and Garibald had tended it for all these years, and so really Garibald had the right to say what was and wasn’t to be done with the tree and the produce it made. The King had no right to the apples; he might own the tree, but it was Garibald’s hard work that caused it to bear fruit!
It was only Garibald’s status as a servant that witheld him from doing with the apples as he saw fit. But Sam knew Garibald well enough by now that he could envision the tongue-lashing that he would get if he suggested such a thing as rebellion. A servant must be loyal to his master; he must be obedient; he must be patient; and though he does not get all the answers he wants, he trusts that his master knows what he’s doing.
But Sam was young, and not so entrenched in such apparently old-fashioned ideas (unfortunately that also meant that he didn’t know any better than to call them old-fashioned). Sam would rebel, and would bring the blessing of the apples to the people outside the walls. Sam would be hailed as a hero, and the King would never have to know about it!
When the apples came in, Sam would climb up into the tree, pick a bushel, and would sneak it out under the cover of darkness. He would leave it with his parents, and they could do with it what they wished. Boy, how pleased they would be, that their young boy was finally doing something worthwhile, growing these beautiful apples!
For a little while, Sam relished this idea, that he would finally become the pride of his family, instead of the left-over, washed-up boy who would only ever be good for heavy, unskilled labor, who would always be bored with his work, who would never find anything worthwhile to do. He envisioned a day when people would see him walk into town, would give him beaming grins for their beautiful, shimmering apple tartlets, when they would grow the beautiful golden apples in their own backyards, when the lovely fruit and the beautiful tree would be everywhere – not just in the King’s store or in his orchards, hidden away where no one could enjoy them!
He grinned to himself, saturated with his pride, and retired to the orcharder’s cottage where they would be sharing some cheese and stew.
Garibald did notice a change in Sam when he returned to the cottage. For one, he did not ask any questions about the King whatsoever, and was perfectly happy to talk about the apples without bringing him up. He in fact seemed utterly content, smiling more than usual, but Garibald could not conceive of what had made him so happy.
He inquired as to his mood, but when Sam dodged the question, Garibald got suspicious and decided not to press the matter. Whatever it was, it would either show itself later in the form of trouble or it would die quietly before it caused a problem.
The leaves kept falling. The early apples had already come and gone, and the mid-season apples were beginning to ripen and fall to the ground on their own. The little green baubles on the gold apple tree were growing larger and larger every day, and beginning to get their characteristic gold sheen; although because it was a late apple, it wouldn’t be ripe until sometime in mid to late October.
The King, from time to time, would come down to see how the harvest was going, and how the trees were doing. They had a team of apple-pickers, which would come up with all sorts of ropes and pulleys, and set up a system for picking the bigger trees safely. For the biggest trees, the system could get quite elaborate and there would be all sorts of ropes and cables winding through the branches, so that if anybody fell while in the treetops they would be caught before they hit the ground. If they were ready to go up into or down from the tree, there was a little swing which could go up or down, operated with a crank by a man who stayed on the ground.
The harvest was in full-swing early in October. The cook had begun to ask anxiously when she would be getting their produce, and Sam always found himself bringing baskets full of apples into the kitchen, only to be met with impatient maids and a frazzled cook, all trying to get everything ready before the next meal.
The air got bitterly cold as the season dragged on. Finally the golden apples began to ripen, and not long afterwards the apple-pickers put together an elaborate system of pulleys, ropes, and safety nets to help them get the apples down in pristine condition. Pounds and pounds upon pounds of apples were brought down and shipped straight to the store rooms, while the flawed and damaged specimens went straight to the delighted cooks (who always loved this time of year for the miraculous produce they were allowed to cook with, which seemed to be good for everything and never needed to be peeled).
Looking up at the many cables and ropes woven and tied around all the massive branches, Sam found himself rather daunted by the task of trying to bring any apples down from the tree, wondering how he was supposed to do it.
Well, he remembered climbing trees as a little boy! The pulley systems required at least two men to operate, but he didn’t need those. He could prove that he was good at climbing trees, at the least, by simply clambering up the side and bringing the apples down by hand! What a marvelous story that would be, to tell his awestruck children by the fire.
Grinning greedily up at the huge, beautiful tree, he formulated the plan in his head. He decided that he would sneak out of the cottage after Garibald was asleep, go over to the tree, quietly collect as many apples as he could carry, and then he would sneak the apples out through the water ducts that carried the water into the castle. He would leave the apples on his family’s front step, and then he would sneak back out of town, go back into the castle the way he came, would change into a dry set of clothes, and be in bed before morning!
And yes, they might catch him, but as long as he had gotten the apples to the people he had accomplished his objective.
Thankfully, Garibald was usually asleep very quickly, and would always sleep very heavily, with a snore that had been annoying Sam an awful lot lately (though it hadn’t bothered him when he first came). It was not long after Garibald began to snore that Sam wiggled out of his cot, got re-dressed, threw a cloak over his shoulders, grabbed a basket off of the shelf, and tiptoed over to his shoes, opening the (terrifyingly) creaky door slowly as he inched his way out, bit by bit.
He shut and latched the door carefully, letting loose a sigh of relief once he had it closed. He walked carefully to the apple tree, surveying his surroundings to make sure that nobody was there before making a break for it.
There was nobody watching him. He would be undisturbed.
He considered how he was to approach climbing the tree. He picked out the lowest branches – which were still a few feet above his head – and ran at the trunk in the hope of using his speed to get up to the branches faster.
The first two attempts to get up into the tree were a failure; he would get onto the trunk and then slide back down again before he could grab onto anything. The third time he managed to wrap his arms around the lowest branch and hauled himself up with a struggle. Feeling some elation of victory, he slid on his belly along the branch until he was at the farthest point that the tree would hold him at, swaying dangerously. He grasped for a few apples that were in his reach, twisting them off as he had been taught, and put them in his basket. But there was still so much room left in the basket, and there were many more apples farther up, so he put the handle of the basket in his teeth and climbed up higher into the tree to keep collecting apples, and he continued in this way until the basket was completely full, and would hold nothing more.
He looked at his basket triumphantly, smirking victoriously at his bushel of apples, until he looked down, and realized that he was in fact a good ten or fifteen feet off the ground. He had climbed himself into a trap, and had no idea how he was supposed to get down.
He put the basket into his teeth to free his hands, and as he was climbing precariously down began to realize that the basket was much too heavy for his head to bear. His neck was straining, and he had to stop at times to take the basket out of his mouth – clinging to the wobbling branches for dear life – to rest. He couldn’t look down to see where he was going, because he had the basket stuck in his teeth, and was not willing to just drop it, because then the fruit would bruise.
And finally, as all this carelessness was sure to amount to, Sammy slipped and fell.
He wasn’t sure how far he fell from. He just knew that first he was plummeting, and the basket came out of his mouth as he was screaming in terror, body scraping by and bouncing off of branches, smashing through twigs and things, and by the time he was at the bottom he was covered in bruises and scrapes, and was in a whole lot of pain, the apples strewn everywhere and the basket lying broken in the grass.
Realizing that he’d have to make a break for it if he was to succeed, Sammy attempted to get up, but let out a cry of pain and fell back onto the earth as soon as he tried. His ankle was throbbing painfully, too tender to walk on, and in his ribs he felt a stabbing pain, which seemed to run all up and down his body the moment he tried to move. He rested for a moment, holding his agonized side, and then attempted to get onto all fours to crawl away, enduring the awful pain. Now he just didn’t want to be caught.
A hand caught him on the shoulder, jarring his injured side, and he gave another bitter cry, eyes watering. His head was starting to smart something awful.
“Oh, my goodness – I’m so sorry – are you hurt, son?”
“You’re apposed to be asleep,” Sammy whined.
“Yes, yes, all that stuff I’m supposed to be so that you don’t get in trouble,” Garibald droned. “Besides the point. Can you walk?”
“Nah,” Sammy choked out. “My ankle’s not right. Please, Garbib – Garbibald, I-I can explain!”
“You don’t need to explain,” Garibald replied, looking pointedly at the mess of apples and the broken basket. “I think I can make a pretty good guess. But come on. You need to see the nurse.”
“Nah, nah,” Sammy pleaded. “I don’ wanna get in trouble.”
“You’ve made that rather difficult for yourself,” Garibald pointed out.
“’M fine. Really I am. See, I can…” Sam tried to get up, but again standing on his sprained ankle was too painful for him, and he fell.
Garibald rolled his eyes. “Children! Come on. No buts.”
The nurse was none too happy to be woken up at such a late hour. After being told the whole story she made a quick diagnostic, ordered for Sammy to be put to bed in the ward, and gave him some tonic to help him sleep. The next morning he awoke late to find that his ribs and ankle were bound in some heavily starched bandages. Several cuts and scratches were patched with some regular bandages. On his bedside table there were several bottles and jars of ointment, which cast a funny scent over the bed.
Sam put his head down on the pillow, resigned to his fate, certain that before the day was up he would have been removed as Garibald’s apprentice, and he’d return to his home the same useless disgrace that he had been when he left. He certainly regretted his hair-brained scheme now, if he hadn’t the moment he hit the ground. His head was throbbing, and he realized that he felt dizzy, too, and so squeezed his eyes shut with discomfort. He tried to remember exactly what had happened between falling from the apple tree and waking up here, but all he could remember was the falling and being caught.
“What a fool I am!” he murmured to himself. “Thinking I could pull off such a ridiculous stunt by myself. Thinking I’d be a hero for thieving! Thinking I could ever get mother to be proud of a weight like me. I’m a moron!”
A nurse looked at him after realizing that he was talking to himself, and he quickly shut up, not wanting to be embarrassed anymore than he already had been.
The door swung open. Garibald came into the ward, looking severe, and following shortly behind was a man in a long, flowing red robe, with shining brown hair and a gold chain around his neck. His crown must be elsewhere, but it was surely the King, and Sam tried his best to pretend to be asleep, because he was too afraid to talk to the King right now.
He had his eyes squeezed shut, but by the approaching of feet and their stopping at the sides of his bed, he knew that they were both looking at him.
“Sam,” came the King’s booming voice. “Open your eyes.”
Sammy was too frightened to face his King, and refused to obey.
Garibald smacked him on the shoulder. “Sam, listen to your king!”
Slowly and reluctantly, Sam opened his eyes. The King was at his side, looking down at him, and Sam looked up with nothing short of terror, shrinking into his bed. The King didn’t say anything for a while, and as he just stared steadily down at Sam, face neither kind nor angered, Sam’s fear grew, and he covered his face with his arms, now quite nearly ready to cry.
“I’m sorry,” he sobbed. “I’m so sorry! Please don’t hurt me. Don’t send me back to my mom.”
“I know you are, son,” the King said gently. “Please, there is no need to weep.”
Sam tried to hold it in, and was barely successful. “Please don’t send me home,” he pleaded. “Please. I don’t think I could bear it.”
“There will be no need,” the King replied.
Just that alone would have been sufficient for Sam, but the King went on.
“I see you are still in no shape to leave this bed,” he said. “The doctor has said that you suffer from a broken rib, a sprained ankle, and a very mild concussion. I see that besides the mental torment you suffer you have already gained a good degree of punishment from your lack of sense alone.”
Sam began to timidly peek out from his arms. The King was still looking down at him, thoughtfully, and Sam found that it was still too frightening to look at him, even if he was speaking gently and offering him mercy, and so he covered his eyes again.
“At the same time I fear that sometime into the future, you may indeed learn how to pick the apples without ropes for safety, be overcome with your pride, and attempt to steal from me again. I would hope that you would learn from the first time, but to make sure that the lesson sticks I will be docking your pay, at least temporarily. You will still hold your position.”
“You really mean it?”
Sam sobbed again, overwhelmed and frankly baffled. “I’m keeping my job. I’m not going home.”
“You’re not going home,” the King repeated gently.
Garibald smacked him on the shoulder again. “Have some dignity!” he chastised. “You are in the presence of your King!”
If anything, that made it worse, because Sam screwed up his eyes to try and not cry, and that just made him look more undignified.
“I’m so sorry,” Garibald stammered. “If I had known that he was so dramatic I would have trained him more in decorum!”
“It is fine,” the King replied, smiling softly down at the boy trying not to weep, “I appreciate his honesty.”
It was a few weeks later that Sam was released from the ward. His ankle was healed, and his rib had mended enough that if he was careful with it the rest of his healing would go off without a hitch. Garibald welcomed him back to the cottage with a warm hug, and Sam was so glad to see him that he had nearly forgotten the rule about being careful with his rib. Evidently Garibald had missed his company, and the day’s work was passed peacefully, cleaning up the fallen leaves and the apples dropped from the tree.
They were woken up the next morning by a knock at the cottage door, and Garibald opened it only to discover that the King was outside the door, and Garibald was in his nightshirt.
At first Garibald was affrighted that the King had come and seen him in such unsuitable clothing, but the King merely laughed at his embarrassment, and asked for Sam to come out.
Sam – once he realized who was waiting on him – leapt out of his bedroll, threw on some appropriate clothing, and was out the door quickly before realizing that his coat was inside out. (The King decided not to mention anything. Better not stress out the child much more than he already was!)
So the King asked for Sam to follow him, and Sam obeyed readily, though he was still too nervous to look the King in the eye. It was very quiet and peaceful, for it was also early in the morning – probably about 4 or 5 o’clock – and the two of them didn’t say anything on the way. Finally, Sam began to realize where they were going, and he was quite confused.
“Say,” he asked timidly. “Are we going to the store rooms? Where we keep the apples?”
“Indeed,” the King replied.
“You will know when we get there.”
Sam said nothing, head bowed in silence.
They approached the storage houses, where all the apples were kept; they were organized into two neat rows, with the largest at the back. The King went straight to the largest one, and took a key off of his belt to unlock it. Sam had never been allowed inside before – it was where the store of golden apples was kept – but said nothing.
The padlock came off, and the door swung open. The King walked in, and Sam followed after the long robe trailing on the ground. Upon looking up from the ground, Sam gaped in awe, for what he saw were dozens and dozens of crates, stacked end to end, in high piles, wall to wall, floor to ceiling. There was still room left for this year’s harvest, but it was very near full. In all the crates were stacked golden shining apples, padded with straw and rags, all the flawless specimens that the tree had produced in years past. It was dark, the light passing through the cracks in the wall obscured by the hundreds of crates, and the King opened a lantern hung next to the door, lit it with a tinderbox he’d brought, and took the lantern in his hand. “Come,” he said.
Sam followed him down a corridor formed between the stacks and stacks of apple crates. They went farther and farther back, so far back that Sam thought that they might have been swallowed by all the apple crates (but he knew they weren’t, because he could look back and see the cracks of light around the door, which now seemed infathomably tiny).
On the way, the King grabbed a rolling ladder attached to a rail far above their heads.
Finally they reached the very back. The King placed the ladder at the very last column of crates, and taking off his cape, said, “Now I know that your rib is still tender, so I will ask you to wait here until I get back.”
Sam was now patently astonished, and watched with wide eyes as the King climbed up the old roughened ladder in his velvet pants and silk stockings. At the top, he took a moment to pick the right apple, and climbed back down, apparently satisfied. The apple was particularly beautiful, and had a strange iridescent sheen in addition to its golden color.
“Take this,” said the King, and Sam obeyed, watching as the older man bent over and took a moment to breathe. “Oof. Not what I used to be!” He took his cape off the floor, knocked the dust off, and put it back on. “Now.” He took a knife off of his belt; it was silver, and very beautifully wrought. He held out his other hand. “Hand that here.”
Sam gave the King the apple, and he used the knife to cut off a nice, large chunk. He held the piece out to Sam. “Here. Try it.”
“You’re not serious,” Sam replied incredulously.
“I am,” replied the King.
“Are you yanking my chain?”
“I am not.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“You’ll find out when you obey.”
Sam looked up at his King, frankly feeling a little nervous. He didn’t see how it was possible for the King to be serious, but when Sam looked up into his face, all he saw was patience and compassion.
Slowly, Sam took the piece, stared incredulously at it for another moment, and nibbled at it timidly, still not sure if all this was some elaborate prank. But when he nibbled it, his eyes grew wide, and he paused for another moment – took another second to stare in bewilderment at the innocent piece of apple – and then had a larger bite, chewing slowly and closing his eyes to savor it.
The apple was delightfully sweet, like honey, with a piquant aroma that reminded him of the earlier summer blossoms and ginger. It just barely tart enough to hold back the sweetness, with a subtly spicy edge, a delicate skin that seemed to disintegrate in the mouth and crisp, butter-yellow flesh. It was so packed full of juices that it was not long before Sam’s lips and fingers were sticky with it – and it was exceptionally sticky, as if the entire thing had been injected with syrup.
“Good, isn’t it?”
Sam looked up at the King, who was now cutting a piece for himself.
Sam swallowed hastily. “It is decidedly the most excellent apple I have ever tried,” he confirmed.
“I agree,” said the King, taking a bite.
The two of them stood there, quietly sharing and enjoying the apple. When it was finished, and while the King was struggling to figure out how he was supposed to get the stickiness off of his knife, Sam fidgeted in place and decided to ask a question while he had the opportunity.
“But, um. My lord?”
“I still don’t understand why I’m down here,” Sam said timidly.
The King laughed and slapped him heartily on the back. Sam winced reflexively, but it did not seem that any damage to his rib had been done. “Truly?”
“I am still very confused.”
“Son, I am showing you why I keep the apples for so long.” He waved his hand to indicate the storeroom. “You asked your master again and again why I didn’t share the apples, and he could not answer you but passed the message along to me. So here I am, showing you why I haven’t sold any to market yet.”
It took Sam another moment to process. “…What do you mean?”
The older man sighed, smiling fondly at the boy’s consternation. “I planted this tree when I became king; I had gotten the seeds from a kindly hermit I knew, who told me in secret of its properties. The apples are at their best when they have aged in a cool, dark place for six years, and so instead of selling the apples right when they began to produce, I had them stored in this building to keep until they were ready. Do you undersand, now?”
Sam listened intently, and looked up with wonder at the stacks and stacks of crates that seemed to go on for miles. “I think so,” he replied.
“Although this year,” the King continued with a twinkle in his eye, “I think the first harvest is ready.”
Sam looked positively delighted, shyly licking his sticky fingers. “Sure tastes ready to me.”
The King laughed at that. “Yes, to me also. Shall we go? Surely breakfast is prepared by now.”
“I would hope so. I have a monstrous appetite after such a wonderful treat.”
The King laughed again. “Indeed. Come. Follow me.”
Sam followed, still not totally over his nervousness but now feeling the better part of his fear fading away with a healthy respect. On the way to the dining hall they stopped at a fountain to rinse their hands, and as Sam was shaking the water off of his fingers the King said, “I hope that from now on you will try to trust me.”
“Surely, sir,” Sam replied quickly. “I’ll try to be a good servant, sir.”
“You will obey my commands as you said you would when you agreed to work for me?”
“I will, sir; it certainly seems you know better than I do what you’re doing, anyway.”
“And you will try to exercise patience?”
Sam realized quickly that – being young – he might not be well disposed to patience. “Well… I will try my best.”
The King smiled at him, satisfied, and Sam smiled timidly back.
As promised, once the harvest season for the apple tree was over, wheelbarrowfuls of shining, shimmering, iridescent apples rolled out of the front gates and were brought to the market for selling. Of course once word got around that the King was finally selling his golden apples – and that they were not only gold, but shone with many colors in the sunlight, and on top of that incomparably delicious, with a spicy edge and a syrupy quality that made them perfect for pies and tarts – they sold quickly. Word got back to the orcharder and his apprentice that they were becoming wildly popular, but it was only when the holiday season came around that they understood the full breadth of its popularity.
Firstly, they were given leave for some time while the celebrations were getting underway, but also invited to a small feast at the castle if they would want to come. When Sammy came home for his break, he was greeted with beaming smiles, hearty claps on the back (his rib had mostly healed by now, and so he was able to endure the loving abuse with a grin), and praise for his ‘fine work’ growing the marvelous apples. Somehow they had all come to the conclusion that it was his work at the orchard that caused the huge tree with the yellow leaves to finally produce such marvelous fruit!
For a little while, he accepted the praise gratefully, part of him internally celebrating that his family finally thought that he was doing something of worth, that he had come around, been successful, was good at something. But after a little bit he remembered that it was in fact none of his doing that had brought about this particular batch of apples, and he began to feel uneasy accepting the praise, because he knew that it wasn’t earned.
Maybe in another six years he could say, “I helped produce these apples”, but right now… now it just made him feel bad.
Sheepishly, he took his mother aside and told her the truth: that he actually had nothing to do with these apples, that it was the King and his master who deserved the praise, because it was the King’s knowledge and Garibald’s skill that brought the apples about. She was admittedly a little disappointed, but was more appalled at their own mistake in giving Sam all the credit for what had been a joint effort.
She asked him what exactly it was that made the apples so special, but – quickly realizing that it was probably not information the King would want him to just hand around, especially if the man in charge of the actual tree didn’t know – explained that it was a trade secret.
She seemed disappointed again, and Sam felt like he had let her down as he had so many times before. But she gave him an embrace, praised him for being big enough to give credit where credit was due, and in a small way Sam felt like he had finally done something right.
And after supper, when all the entrees and side dishes were swept away, they brought out pies: one of which was an apple pie, shimmering with a stunning color under the candle light. It was gone in a flash; and although Sam’s mother had explained the mix-up, his family let him have the first piece.
When the time came for Garibald to retire, it was not a hard choice for the King to make on who should take his place.
Sam had grown into a man more than capable of managing the orchards by himself. After he had stopped being so fixated on impressing others, he was able to focus on studying the trees and their productivity in reaction to the weather. After so many years of independent study and a teacher who could patiently answer his myriad questions, Sam found that the occupation was – despite its apparently simple surface – complex and intricate enough to hold his attention long-term. The past few years he had already mostly been managing the orchard by himself, as Garibald was growing too old for the work, and so it wasn’t unexpected when one day Garibald finally said “I’m out, I’m too old for this now!” and went home to be with his grandkids.
The years passed. Sam managed the orchards by himself for quite some time. He was in his forties or fifties by the time he acquired an apprentice of his own. He was called Jared, and had come from a family of gardeners; over the years, the job of ‘the King’s orcharder’ had gotten a good level of prestige due to the yearly output of those fair golden apples (which nobody seemed able to reproduce despite saving the seeds and growing the trees for themselves), and Jared’s father had encouraged his son that if he was going to go into tree-growing, he might as well go get his education from a man who knew what he was doing.
So Sam took Jared under his wing, and taught him as Garibald had before him. The yearly harvest of golden apples came around, and the team of apple-pickers got out their equipment, as usual emptying the entire yield into the storehouse while Sam supervised and Jared observed. And though he wasn’t really expecting the question when Jared asked, he wasn’t too surprised.
“Is there, um, a particular reason that we’re putting the entire harvest into storage? I mean, they didn’t really taste like the ones at market, but don’t we need to sell some of them anyway?”
Sam smiled fondly. “Well, son, I would recommend that you take that question to the King himself. He knows much better than I do.”
“What!? …You don’t mean that, do you?”
“Maaan. You even talk like ‘im.”
And Sam chuckled at his whining, because it reminded him of himself, and over the years he had gotten the humility to laugh at his shortcomings.